Commissioned to commemorate the centenary of the end of the First World War, it is apt that Peter Mitchell’s adaptation of his father James’ iconic story When the Boat Comes In (a TV staple in the 70s, and much beloved in its native North East), premieres in South Shields’ Customs House. Gallowshield, its fictional setting, is based on the town, where both Mitchell senior and junior were raised.
Jack Ford survives the war with broadened horizons and a determination to make good, only to return to a place he finds unchanged, plagued by poverty and unemployment. Tackling the role made famous by TV legend James Bolam, Jamie Brown nicely captures Ford’s cockiness and plain-spoken pragmatism, while hinting at the vulnerability underneath, the damage done in the trenches. He sparks nicely with Alice Stokoe’s Jessie, a bright, sharp woman with ambitions of her own, but one who is hampered by her responsibilities and the restrictions of the times.
The pair are ably supported by a capable cast, many of whom play multiple roles. Janine Birkett gets most of the laughs as Jessie’s mother, a down to earth, easy going woman with a fondness for a drink who acts as the emotional life raft for a family rife with troubles: a patriarch (Steve Byron) whose dignity is challenged by the hardship of the strike, and a needy son (Matthew Howdon) with an ailing wife (Sarah Balfour).
Everyone has been marked by the war: from the widowed Dolly (an appealing Anna Bolton) with whom Jack finds more physical comforts than his courtship with Jessie allows, to her brother and Jack’s partner in crime, Matt (Charlie Richmond), to the broken boy Will (Luke Maddison), a shell-shocked veteran whose pain ends up hurting not only himself.
The piece is tightly directed by Katy Weir (joint director of the Darlington company ODDMANOUT), with moments of real visual flair, particularly in the opening scenes, when Jack is stripped of the trappings of battle by those who didn’t survive it. Alison Ashton’s louring design serves the production well, enhanced by Nick John Williams’ sound.
Peter Mitchell’s script isn’t subtle, but is leavened with enough humour to stop it becoming a bit too Grim Up North. It’s particularly good at capturing the necessary compromises of an age when there was little but hard choices, and recognising that Jack’s particular strength is he makes them without flinching or self-pity.
When the Boat Comes in is on until 25 August 2018 at the South Shields Customs House. Click here for more details.